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Charles Lieber’s trial is also a test of China’s initiative


For their part, the plaintiffs believe they have a court case. They allege that Lieber was recruited into the Chinese Thousand Talents Scheme – a program intended to attract top scientists – and paid large sums to set up a research lab at Wuhan University of Technology, but hid the affiliation from US grant agencies when asked about it (read a copy of the indictment here). Lieber faces six criminal charges: two counts of making false statements to investigators, two counts of filing a false tax return, and two counts of failing to report a foreign bank account.

“Simply put, the government will establish that Lieber intentionally made false statements … in order to protect his reputation and career at Harvard,” prosecutors wrote in their case summary submitted last week.

In response, defense attorney Mark Mukasey said the government would not be able to show that Lieber “acted knowingly, intentionally, or willfully, or made any material false statement.”

Lieber is a high-ranking academic commissioned under the China Initiative and one of the very few who are not of Chinese descent.

The case against Lieber may be groundbreaking for the government, which has several similar cases pending against US professors who claim they have not disclosed their affiliations with China to donor agencies.

Andrew Lelling, a former US attorney general for Massachusetts who served on the China Initiative’s steering committee before leaving the federal government for private practice, said he wouldn’t comment on any individual cases, but said he expected the government to be. successful in prosecuting cases such as moving forward in the Lieber case.

My point is that research integrity issues usually win the government. It’s been slowed down significantly by the coronavirus, so you have a lot of unresolved issues, but I think you’ll see the government win most of them,” Liiling told MIT Technology Review.


China Initiative

The China initiative was announced in 2018 by Jeff Sessions, then the Trump administration’s attorney general, as a central component of the administration’s hard-line stance on China.

An MIT Technology Review investigation published earlier this month found that China’s initiative is an umbrella for various types of prosecutions linked in some way to China, with targets ranging from a Chinese national running a turtle-smuggling gang to state-sponsored hackers believed to be behind them. Some of the biggest data breaches in history. In total, MIT Technology Review identified 77 cases filed under the initiative; Of these, a quarter have resulted in a guilty plea or conviction, but nearly two-thirds are still pending.

The government’s prosecution of researchers like Lieber for concealing ties with Chinese institutions has been the most controversial and fastest-growing aspect of the government’s effort. In 2020, half of the 31 new cases brought under China’s initiative were cases against scientists or researchers. These cases largely did not charge the defendants with violating the Economic Espionage Act.

Last fall, hundreds of academics across the country, from institutions including Stanford University and Princeton University, signed a letter calling on Attorney General Merrick Garland to end the China initiative. They wrote that the initiative has deviated from its original mission of combating theft of Chinese intellectual property and, instead, is harming US research competitiveness by discouraging scholars from coming to or staying in the United States.

Among the issues that led to the admission of guilt:

  • Xiaojiang Li, a former Emory University professor who studied genetics, pleaded guilty to one count of filing a false tax return in May 2020. He was sentenced to one year in prison and paid $30,000 in compensation. He is now a researcher at the Chinese National Academy of Sciences.
  • Song Jo Cheng, a former professor at Ohio State University, pleaded guilty in November 2020 to one count of making false statements to investigators about his affiliation with a Chinese university and the Thousand Talents scheme. Cheng, who studies autoimmune disorders, was sentenced to 37 months in prison last summer and has paid nearly $4 million in damages to the National Institutes of Health and his former employer.

After Zheng was sentenced, prosecutors said they hoped his fate would serve as a message to other academics. “We hope that Zheng’s prison sentence will deter others from any connection to China’s so-called ‘Thousand Talents Scheme’ or any of its variants,” said Vipal J. Patel, acting US attorney for the Southern District of Ohio.

Science in Probation

Lieber’s case is the second trial by the China Initiative of an academic to end up in a courtroom. The only person facing trial on charges of research integrity, University of Tennessee Knoxville professor Anming Ho, was acquitted by a judge in June after a faltering jury led to a wrongful trial.

There are five other pending cases in our database related to research integrity charges against US university professors. (For a list of research integration cases, click here. For the full China Initiative database, click here.)

These include the case of Jang Chen, an MIT professor who was arrested at Boston’s Logan Airport in 2020, who is also accused of deceiving grant agencies and failing to disclose a foreign bank account. (MIT, which pays for Chen’s defense, says the main collaboration on the case was actually a formal agreement he entered into.)


Lieber, now on paid administrative leave from Harvard University, has run a prominent lab that specializes in building silicon nanowires into electronics, lasers, and even a neural network that can be injected into the brain as a brain-computer interface.

Lieber’s 2015 paper presenting the neural network was typical of his lab’s output in that nearly everyone — 10 of the 13 authors — had a Chinese name. They were Harvard doctoral students and postdocs, many of whom were recruited from mainland China for demanding roles in cutting-edge chemistry and trained as a new generation of scientists.

David Liu, a gene-editing specialist who is also a professor in Harvard University’s department of chemistry, said he hasn’t kept up with Liber’s legal status. “But I will say that apart from being a world-class scientist,” he says, “Charlie was a kind and loyal teacher to students and young colleagues, and someone who worked tirelessly and selflessly to help others.”

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